Is Teamwork Overrated? Only When Leaders Aren’t Really on the Team

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Aug 7, 2014

There’s no ‘I’ in team.”

“We appreciate you taking one for the team.”

“You’re not a team player.”

If the corporate realm has given birth to a more odious, misused, and abused word than “team,” I must confess that I don’t know what that is.

Good player vs. bad player defines “team” this way:

“A group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project.

And, that definition is as good as any, I think.

So what does it mean, then, when an employee is lauded as being a “good team player” or vilified as NOT being “a good team player?”

Usually it is something along these lines:

  • Team player — “You do what we want without question and without exercising/asserting your own judgment.”
  • Not a good team player — “You challenge and question us, insist on holding us accountable, and won’t compromise your individuality for our benefit.”

“We” is management (at any level). “You” is any individual who disagrees with management, including other members of management.

What’s going on here?

Of course, this wrong-headed view of teamwork isn’t present in every organization or within every department in any given organization. Still, it certainly seems a prevalent view, at least based on my 20 plus years in the workplace.

And what makes this view so unrelentingly offensive is its utter dishonesty. Only those on the “one-down” side of the power differential are expected to hold to this self-diminishing definition of “team player.”

Those with power aren’t.

Consider the leader of the Dauntless faction in the movie Divergent. He was real big on the importance of following the rules — even as he did whatever the hell he pleased.

Sound familiar?

When a rose isn’t really a rose

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I get upset when words are used improperly, especially when the intent is to manipulate.

And when some sorry-ass manager starts in about how offering an alternate opinion of his dumb idea is evidence of not being a good team player, the objective is none other than to maintain control.

This manager isn’t interested in analyzing or even entertaining an alternate viewpoint. He just wants to be on top and for the questioning employee to shut up — which means that at the same time this manager is accusing his employee of being selfish, the manager is being selfish and lousy at his job, to boot.

As such, his talk of “teamwork” is ironic at best and evidence of a serious pathology at worst.

Now THIS is teamwork

Do you like choral music? I do.

With choral music, many voices can achieve a sound that’s absolutely impossible to create with a single voice, even a gorgeous single voice. Choral music is layered, and it’s varied. It is full and rich. It’s amazing, really.

And while each choir has its stars — those that lead the chorus or assume the occasional solo part — there’s no question that a soloist is not a choir, and a choir is pretty darn awesome.

So here’s my point. It’s way cool to be a soloist leading a choir, but it’s equally cool to be one of many voices, and yet still have your own voice (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, etc.), while creating something marvelous that can’t easily be reproduced through any other method.

That’s real teamwork — each member contributing his individual strengths for the good of the whole without any erosion of the self. Anything else is BS.

The problem with corporate “teamwork”

By and large, corporate “teamwork” has become a hollow concept. (Seriously, show me a CFO/COO, CEO/whatever who consistently subordinates her behavior for the benefit of her organization, and I’ll show you a very rare bird, indeed.)

And the problem with corporate teamwork is the same problem with so many other positive corporate values — leadership loves to talk the talk, but they won’t walk the walk.

Moreover, many leaders apparently don’t understand what makes a good team, as evidenced by (a) how quick they are to choose employees who remind them of themselves; and, (b) how quick they are to school rebels in “the way we do things around here.”

And aside from the resentment and low morale that’s caused when people begin to realize how little their individuality is respected and how hypocritical their leaders are, all this matters because team work — real team work — is essential to outstanding corporate performance.

Remember the example of the choir? Some accomplishments simply cannot be achieved through individual acts alone.

What can be done?

If you’ve been labeled as “not a team player” ask yourself what’s really going on. Decent folks will self-reflect when criticized, and there’s nothing wrong with it. When confronted you should self-reflect and own any part of your behavior that needs adjusting.

But if it turns out that your boss is a narcissistic ass, then please, don’t internalize her criticism. No good will come of that. At the same time, use this opportunity to affirm who you are and what you believe, then hold your head high as you “keep on doing you.”

If you’ve labeled someone else as “not a team player” ask yourself how you’ve reached that conclusion. Is the individual’s behavior a true disruption to the department, or is the real issue that you’re uncomfortable with conflict or unwilling to be challenged? And if either of these (or both) is true, how is that affecting your ability to do your job?

Diversity, not drones

If you’re a member of senior leadership, how well are you equipping managers to lead and evaluate teams? And how much innovation, creativity, and good will are you comfortable surrendering so that your managers can maintain a “one-up” stance with their staff members?

High-functioning teams are NOT devoid of diversity, and they are NOT without conflict. They aren’t composed of drones, either.

In high-functioning teams, each member’s unique talents are first, known; second, appreciated; and third, applied appropriately. High-functioning teams produce good results but also good feelings, because erosion of the self for the “greater cause” is neither required nor valued.

Is teamwork overrated? Nah!

Some say that teamwork is overrated, and I’m definitely one who understands the benefits of working alone.

Nevertheless, we’re social beings, and two heads definitely can be better than one. That’s why we owe it to ourselves (and each other, frankly), to understand what a team is, what it isn’t, why they work, and how — and when they fail.

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